Colorado State University’s Argus Institute Helps Vets, Pet Owners Communicate for Optimal Pet Health

Colorado State University’s Argus Institute is partnering with Firehouse Animal Health Centers in Denver in a unique program to train veterinary clinic doctors and employees to enhance communication with pet owners with a goal of increasing pet health and owner satisfaction in care.

In today’s society, pets are part of the family. When a pet gets sick, it can be concerning to owners. Clear communication between the animal’s owner and veterinarian is key to helping the animal get well and stay well.

The intensive year-long program works with all employees at the Firehouse facility at Capitol Hill, emphasizing the role of every person in the business – from the receptionist to the doctors – in effective communication. The training is lead by Argus Director Jane Shaw, known nationally for her pioneering work in veterinary communication, and Gwyn Barley, director of the Center for Advancing Professional Excellence at University of Colorado’s Denver Health Sciences Center, School of Medicine.

During the training, Shaw and Barley shadow veterinary team members one day a month, closely observing their interactions with clients and providing feedback about how the team could communicate – and listen – more effectively.

"Ultimately, our quality of care depends on our ability to communicate with clients, animals and staff. Without effective communication, our standard of care suffers," said Cassie Todd, a veterinarian at Firehouse. "Effective and specific communication is integral."

Veterinary communication – communication between veterinarians and pet owners – is a new topic in veterinary training. Although communication is a typical part of training for human medical doctors, Colorado State’s Argus Institute is a leader in the nation on training veterinary students in communication skills they’ll need to improve outcomes for veterinarians, clients and their pets.

The veterinary communication field is a growing discipline gaining the attention of researchers and professionals.

Poor communication skills can lead to stress, anxiety and turnover among veterinary teams, who may be unequipped to address challenging conversations or who may not have the skills to encourage the client to reveal key details that may make significant differences in their diagnosis of a pet. In addition, clients may not comply with medical directions for their pet, or may feel unsatisfied with the care their animal received if a veterinarian is not skillful at explaining a diagnosis, treatment plan, or expectations the pet owner should have for their pet’s health.

"Effective communication is important to everyone involved in veterinary care," Shaw said. "Developing a collaborative partnership based on mutual respect, negotiation and understanding with clients and among staff has many benefits. Veterinarians are more satisfied with their job and clients are more likely to follow their recommendations. Animals experience improved health and a closer bond develops between pet owners and veterinary team."

Under the Argus training model, the emphasis is on shared decision-making between the veterinarian and the client. Veterinarians traditionally do most of the talking, set the agenda in visits and often assume a client will comply with recommendations, missing an opportunity to engage the client as a partner in the animal’s care. In contrast, in shared decision-making clients take an active role in the healthcare of their pet.  Veterinarians elicit the clients concerns and perspectives on the animal’s illness and take those into account in negotiating a diagnostic or treatment plan with the client’s input.

"Since our patients do not communicate verbally, we must rely on human interaction to provide the important clues to care," said Jed Rogers, chief medical officer of Firehouse. "If we do not hone our skills in communication, then we may be limited in our patient care and the patients suffer. On the other hand, if we go through training to increase our skill level with communication, the clients and veterinary team are happier with their experience, and the patient has been given the best care possible. That is profoundly valuable – the satisfaction of clients and staff, and the comfort of our patients, are goals that serve as the foundation of our company."

Rogers points out that when employees are focused on providing the best of care, a healthy bottom line automatically follows. In addition, he and partner Greg Waldbaum plan to create Argus training for all of their employees at the company’s six Denver locations.

Rogers commented that Argus is a unique and wonderful resource.

"Colorado State University is one of the very few veterinary schools in the nation to devote significant resources to veterinary communication, and this helps set them apart from the crowd," said Rogers. "Devoting these resources to this crucial aspect of veterinary practice is forward-thinking to say the least."

The benefits have extended from promoting client service to how the team works together.

"Argus’ involvement has increased our own personal expectations of how our clients and patients are treated," said Raven Roth, client service coordinator. In addition, the training has helped the employees work better as a team. "Because of the training, we have been making a conscious effort to be more open with our feelings and talk about stresses that we feel. The team approach at Firehouse feels more effortless. No matter how well you communicate, there are skills and techniques that can make you communicate that much better."